Conflagration in the Caucasus: South Ossetia

 


• Territory: South Ossetia
• Status: Break-away region of Georgia. Separated from Georgia in a 1991-92 war.
• Status: Region within Georgia
• Population: Approximately 70,000
• Capital: Tskhinvali
• Major languages: Ossetian, Georgian, Russian
• Major religion: Christianity
• Currency: Russian rouble, Georgian lari



Rayons (yellow, numbered) and the capital city (red) of the Republic of South Ossetia. The borders
according to the Soviet ones. Rayons: 1. Dzau rayon. 2. Znaur rayon. 3. Tskhinval rayon. 4.
Leningor rayon. The most part of the Leningor rayon is controlled by the central Georgian
authorities; most of the other territories are controlled by separatist government in Tskhinval.




President: Eduard Kokoiti

One-time wrestling champion Eduard Kokoiti, or Kokoyev, won unrecognized presidential elections
in South Ossetia in December 2001 and again in November 2006.

A businessman and former communist, he holds Russian citizenship.

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoiti

He has angered Tbilisi by stating his aim to be the unification of North and South Ossetia within the
Russian Federation. He describes Russia as the main guarantor of stability in the Caucasus and
has strong ties with the like-minded Abkhaz leadership.

He has warned Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili against aggressive Georgian nationalism
and insists that the people of South Ossetia do not regard themselves as part of Georgia.

Mr. Kokoiti was born in 1964.

Timeline: South Ossetia

A Chronology of key events and facts:

South Ossetia is a territory of around 4,000sq km (1,544sq mls), situated about 100km north of the
Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and on the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s spurred a separatist movement in South
Ossetia, which had always felt more affinity with Russia than with Georgia.

It broke away from Georgian rule in a war in 1991-92, in which several thousand people died, and
continues to maintain close ties with the neighboring Russian region of North Ossetia, on the north
side of the Caucasus.

The majorities of the roughly 70,000 people are ethnically distinct from Georgians, and speak their
own language, related to Farsi.

They say they were forcibly absorbed into Georgia under Soviet rule and now want to exercise their
right to self-determination. The separatist leader is Eduard Kokoity.

In November 2006, villages inside South Ossetia still under Georgian control elected a rival leader,
former separatist Dmitry Sanakoyev. He is endorsed by Tbilisi, but his authority only extends to a
small part of the region.

Around two-thirds of South Ossetia's annual budget revenues of around $30 million (ˆ19.9 million)
come directly from Moscow. Almost all the population hold Russian passports. They use the
Russian rouble as their currency.

A peacekeeping force with 500 members each from Russia, Georgia and North Ossetia monitors a
supposed truce. Georgia accuses the Russian peacekeepers of siding with the separatists, which
Moscow denies.

Sporadic clashes between separatist and Georgian forces have killed dozens of people in the last
few years


ARMED FORCES COMPARED

GEORGIA
Total personnel: 26,900
Main battle tanks (T-72): 82
Armored personnel carriers: 139
Combat aircraft (Su-25): Seven
Heavy artillery pieces (including Grad rocket launchers): 95

RUSSIA
Total personnel: 641,000
Main battle tanks (various): 6,717
Armored personnel carriers: 6,388
Combat aircraft (various): 1,206
Heavy artillery pieces (various): 7,550

Source: Jane's Sentinel Country Risk Assessments

Why does South Ossetia want to break away from Georgia? What is its current political status?

South Ossetia has historically enjoyed degrees of autonomy even within Imperial and Soviet
Russia, and has attempted to gain independence a number of times in the past. It is a de facto
independent republic within Georgia. While not officially recognized as an independent state by any
other country or international body, South Ossetia has repeatedly stated it would settle for nothing
less than outright independence from Georgia.

Many South Ossetians feel they are unnaturally separated from the Ossetians across the border in
the Russian republic of North Ossetia and would like to see independence as a way to unite with
Russia.

What are Russia’s ties to the separatists?

Russia has a contingent of peacekeepers in the disputed areas of Georgia. Georgia claims that the
peacekeepers actually favor the separatist governments. As Georgia has moved closer to the West,
seeking membership in NATO, Russia has countered with a number of moves which have tightened
the ties between Russia and South Ossetia/Abkhazia.

Where does the international community stand on the issue?

No country or organization (OSCE, U.N., NATO, and SCO) has recognized the sovereignty of South
Ossetia. But we are seeing Russia and Georgia try to put forward two different narratives to the
international community. Georgia, which is angling for eventual NATO membership, would like to
paint this as internal Georgian affair that Russia is interfering in. Russia, on the other hand, claims it
is protecting its own legally-stationed peacekeepers and its fellow citizens.

What are the risks of a wider regional conflict?

The risks here are great. With casualties to Russia’s peacekeeping force and attacks on Georgian
territory beyond the conflict zone, we are already seeing the potential for this to spin into a larger,
Russian-Georgian conflict. In addition, many of Russia’s unstable Caucasus regions — Chechnya,
Ingushetia, Dagestan — are nearby and could see a spillover of violence into their regional conflicts.

The volatile Caucasus region is strategically important as a transitroute for oil from the east.
Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili is, without question, the region's most volatile leader. His
decision to shell the South Ossetian city of Tshkinvali while most world leaders were in Beijing for
the opening of the Olympic Games has threatened to cause the biggest crisis in Europe for almost
two decades. His action appears to have been a calculated gamble at a time when world attention is
focused elsewhere.

Assessment:

Iran, watching conflict in the Caucasus unfold virtually on its doorstep. Iran borders on two of
Georgia's neighbors in the Caucasus – Armenia and Azerbaijan -- and historically maintains a close
geopolitical interest in the volatile region.

Its capital Tehran lies 880 kilometers (550 miles), as the crow flies,
from Georgia's capital Tbilisi -- about the same distance as Paris and
Berlin.

From the viewpoint of the United States, Georgia is a vital and a strategic partner in promoting and
protecting the national interests of our nation. Georgia’s proximity to the southern Russian plank,
Iran and the gas rich oilfields of Central Asia enables the United States to effectively control and
monitor developments and events in the very area and act if needed. Threats emanating from
nuclear Iran and Central Asia which includes and not limited to Islamic fundamentalism can spread
beyond the boundaries of Asia Minor. Therefore it is in our national interest to see and safeguard
Georgian territorial integrity. Georgia offers the key to stability and the territorial post for our
policymakers to be able to exercise our national interests in the post cold –war world.

This analysis/assessment is directly from the knowledge and skills of Kerop B. Gourdikian, CIP of
SIF/GIA.

 
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